If you ask someone what their favourite Christmas movie is, you probably won’t get a unique answer from every single individual you approach. In fact, if you ask enough people, you will be able to pool the answers into sub-groups because some will list classics like It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street, some will go with the TV staples of the days of yore like Die Hard, Home Alone or Lethal Weapon, some will go with Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings movies as their go-to comfort picks, while others will try to look edgy and cool by telling you Eyes Wide Shut is actually a Christmas movie and they will insist on religiously watching Tom Cruise going to orgies right after their family dinner.
While there is a limited set (though still a hefty one) of films we tend to gravitate toward over the Christmas period, we all have our own personal reasons for doing so. Therefore, what we choose to watch over the Christmas period – a time of comfort and belonging – is a great cue to our own personalities; which is something I realized not too long ago. For me, apart from the obvious TV classics like Die Hard and either of the two Culkinful Home Alone movies (for which Christmas offers the perfect excuse to sit down and guiltlessly revisit), no Christmas would be complete without paying a visit to the Griswold household.
Look, I’m not here to defend National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, as I fully understand it is not everyone’s cup of tea and that even in the roster of other movies in the series it ain’t the funniest or most original. But I have always loved it. I know it by heart at this point and it is my personal tradition to put it on whenever I’m wrapping presents and see how far I get before Clark loses his shit. It’s just such a perfect nostalgia vehicle for me that even the first beats of the opening credits song are enough to put me in the blissful Christmas spirit. I think this is a Christmas movie I have rewatched the most and for the longest in my life and I am pretty sure I’ll rewatch it during my last ever Christmas, whenever that may be.
What I am here to do, however, is to investigate what draws me to this movie in addition to base-level nostalgia, because – as I have just indicated – everyone has their own personal reasons for coming back to the same movie numerous times.
Those who grew up in at least slightly dysfunctional environments will be able to sympathize with the idea that films or books can offer an escape route from a miserable reality. So, let’s just say that – put politely – my childhood was irreparably marked by constant anxiety of being locked in a cage with a tiger. Having a frustrated psychopath for a father who really didn’t need any excuses to fly off the handle and unleash biblical wrath on those who dared trespass him was only amplified during the Christmas period; partly because he was at home more and partly because – with extra chores around the house – there were more opportunities to disappoint him and give him a dispensation to scream at everyone in his vicinity despite the fact he was desperately trying to put on a good show and be festive for a change.
From the safe distance of very many years it now looks positively harmless but at the time I truly detested Christmas breaks as they were essentially equivalent to ceaseless screaming matches, anger and verbal intimidation, all in the service of getting prepared for a string of meals and family functions where we’d have to tiptoe around that sleeping caged tiger hoping he’d not awaken and devour us or anybody else who came to visit.
So, why would I escape to a fictitious world where a different family had their own hell-on-Earth Christmas instead of somewhere more blissful? I never knew exactly why that was, but I somehow felt more at home with the Griswold armageddon than my own and now that I have been thinking about it, I believe it has to do with who Clark Griswold is as a character and – more generally – who the Griswolds are as a family unit.
You can accuse Clark of very many things. He’s not the brightest, a bit too trigger-happy, he has a dirty mind, and he frequently fantasizes about other women, but he is incredibly loyal to his wonderful wife, hard-working and, most importantly, his heart is always in the right place. In fact, everything Clark ever does is filtered through one simple heuristic of making sure it benefits his family.
Clark doesn’t organize the most intricate vacations because he has a whim. He does it because he wants hie entire family to have a great time together. He doesn’t invite absolutely everyone under his roof for a Christmas party because he wants to feel good about himself, but to make sure they all get the best Christmas in their lives. No man has ever spent a night on the roof in freezing weather stapling multiple thousands to Christmas lights for selfish reasons. Men show affection through sacrifice and pain and live off the dopamine hit coming from how their hard work affected their loved ones.
Clark never gave up. Even when the lights did not work, and his in-laws dismissed him as a failure. He did not give up when he forgot to bring a saw to the forest, and he had to dig his perfect Griswold family Christmas tree out of the ground with his own bare hands and when it eventually burned down in a blaze of glory. He stayed optimistic when the turkey deflated on the plate and when Eddie’s dog barfed under the table. Even if barely, he always remained cool and at best only slightly passive aggressive.
Until he didn’t, of course. I hope everyone knows how the movie eventually spirals into chaos when Clark finally loses his marbles having received his long-awaited bonus and having immediately found out he had been sold down the drain by his despicable boss. This is when the mask slips off and Clark cannot contain his frustration anymore. He spirals into rage, replaces the burned-out tree, the family gets terrorized by a squirrel, the snooty neighbours get their just desserts, Eddie kidnaps Clark’s boss, the cops fly through the window, Uncle Lewis blows up the methane-filled sewers, the decorations fly through the sky and everyone sings the national anthem, but they live happily ever after.
Again, why would anyone find this environment soothing or blissful? Well, this is going to require some explanation, but the simple answer is because it’s realistic.
You heard me.
The horror of Christmas Vacation is a realistic depiction of any family reunion going terribly wrong in oh-so-many ways, though it’s comedically blown out of proportion in scope. But everyone probably has an Uncle Eddie or Aunt Bethany. Some of us could have easily identify as Rus when they were younger. And perhaps we all know a Clark.
Well, I think at the time I subconsciously wished I had Clark for a dad.
Why? He’s nuts! Can’t you see?
No, he’s not. He’s just flawed. His imperfections make him more relatable as a human being, but he is a dad who puts his family first and does his absolute level best to keep cool. And in fact, he always – always!!! – keeps it cool when it comes to dealing with his family. He lets it slide when Eddie stuffs his sewers with fecal matter or when he flagrantly takes advantage of his hospitality. He takes care of his nephews, he extinguishes Uncle Lewis when he burns down the tree, and he remains jovial and respectful towards his in-laws even when they openly mock his DIY skills in front of everyone.
He loses it when trouble comes from the outside. When external forces gather to wreak havoc on the Griswold family, Clark sheds his teddy bear apparel and becomes a raging grizzly, a protector of his homestead. And I somehow ended up with a dad who always did the opposite of keeping it cool in front of those who came to visit and taking his frustrations out on his family behind closed doors. From where I was sitting, the Griswold family Christmas looked perfect in that the mayhem they endured was polarized in the correct way.
I suppose whenever Clark asks where Tylenol is after a climactic bout of venting, my respect for him as a character begins to increase, as he effectively gains another dimension. He is flawed and frail, but somehow stronger as a result. He lashes out but somehow his family stands behind him because they all know – and I do too – that his heart is in the right place and that if there was anyone who deserved to catch a break throughout this Christmas ordeal, it was Clark.
In a way, I can see Clark Griswold as the Rocky Balboa of family movies: a flawed man with the heart of gold who must learn to confront his demons, put up a fair fight and go to distance. Thus, he becomes a weirdly perfect role model for a family man archetype because his imperfections make him perfect, if that makes any sense. He endears me exactly because I know perfectly what it feels like to hold in my frustrations, insecurities and anxieties and do whatever it takes not to unload any of them on my family. Clark Griswold epitomises this desire to put in the work, do what’s needed and remain a beacon of positivity even in the face of overwhelming odds. He’s the perfect Christmas dad: a Christmas dad I wish I had when I was growing up and a Christmas dad I honestly want to be – imperfect, but always aspiring to do what’s right.